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Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the

Achille Mbembe

This document was deliberately written as a spoken text. It forms the basis of a
series of public lectures given at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic
Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), at
conversations with the Rhodes Must Fall Movement at the University of Cape Town
and the Indexing the Human Project, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at
the University of Stellenbosch. The nature of the events unfolding in South Africa,
the type of audience that attended the lectures, the nature of the political and
intellectual questions at stake required an entirely different mode of address one
that could speak both to reason and to affect.

Twenty one years after freedom, we have now fully entered what looks
like a negative moment. This is a moment most African postcolonial
societies have experienced. Like theirs in the late 1970s, 1980s and
1990s, ours is gray and almost murky. It lacks clarity.
Today many want to finally bring white supremacy to its knees. But the
same seem to go missing when it comes to publically condemning the
extra-judicial executions of fellow Africans on the streets of our cities
and in our townships. As Fanon intimated, they see no contradiction
between wanting to topple white supremacy and being anti-racist while
succumbing to the sirens of isolationism and national-chauvinism.
Many still consider whites as settlers who, once in a while, will attempt
to masquerade as natives. And yet, with the advent of democracy and
the new constitutional State, there are no longer settlers or natives.
There are only citizens. If we repudiate democracy, what will we replace
it with?

Our white compatriots might be fencing off their privileges. They might
be enclaving them and off-shoring them but they are certainly going
And yet they cannot keep living in our midst with whiteness old clothes.
Fencing off ones privileges, off-shoring them, living in enclaves does not
in itself secure full recognition and survival.
Meanwhile, blackness is fracturing. Black consciousness today is
more and more thought of in fractions.
A negative moment is a moment when new antagonisms emerge while
old ones remain unresolved.
It is a moment when contradictory forces - inchoate, fractured,
fragmented are at work but what might come out of their interaction is
anything but certain.
It is also a moment when multiple old and recent unresolved crises seem
to be on the path towards a collision.
Such a collision might happen - or maybe not. It might take the form of
outbursts that end up petering out. Whether the collision actually
happens or not, the age of innocence and complacency is over.
When it comes to questions concerning the decolonization of the
university - and of knowledge - in South Africa now, there are a number
of clear-cut political and moral issues which are also issues of fairness
and decency many of us can easily agree upon.
Demythologizing whiteness
One such issue has just been dealt with and successfully - at the
University of Cape Town.
To those who are still in denial, it might be worth reiterating that Cecil
Rhodes belonged to the race of men who were convinced that to be black
is a liability.
During his time and life in Southern Africa, he used his considerable
power political and financial - to make black people all over Southern
Africa pay a bloody price for his beliefs.

His statue and those of countless others who shared the same
conviction - has nothing to do on a public university campus 20 years
after freedom.
The debate therefore should have never been about whether or not it
should be brought down. All along, the debate should have been about
why did it take so long to do so.
To bring Rhodes statue down is far from erasing history, and nobody
should be asking us to be eternally indebted to Rhodes for having
donated his money and for having bequeathed his land to the
University. If anything, we should be asking how did he acquire the land
in the first instance.
Arguably other options were available and could have been considered,
including that which was put forward late in the process by retired Judge
Albie Sachs whose contribution to the symbolic remaking of what is
today Constitution Hill is well recognized.
But bringing Rhodes statue down is one of the many legitimate ways in
which we can, today in South Africa, demythologize that history and put
it to rest which is precisely the work memory properly understood is
supposed to accomplish.
For memory to fulfill this function long after the Truth and
Reconciliation paradigm has run out of steam, the demythologizing of
certain versions of history must go hand in hand with the
demythologizing of whiteness.
This is not because whiteness is the same as history. Human history, by
definition, is history beyond whiteness.
Human history is about the future. Whiteness is about entrapment.
Whiteness is at its best when it turns into a myth. It is the most corrosive
and the most lethal when it makes us believe that it is everywhere; that
everything originates from it and it has no outside.
We are therefore calling for the demythologization of whiteness because
democracy in South Africa will either be built on the ruins of those
versions of whiteness that produced Rhodes or it will fail.

In other words, those versions of whiteness that produced men like

Rhodes must be recalled and de-commissioned if we have to put history
to rest, free ourselves from our own entrapment in white mythologies
and open a future for all here and now.
It might then be that the statue of Rhodes and the statues of countless
men of his ilk that are littering the South African landscape properly
belong to a museum - an institution that, with few exceptions, has
hardly been subjected to the kind of thorough critique required by these
times of ours in South Africa.
Yet, a museum properly understood is not a dumping place. It is not a
place where we recycle historys waste. It is first and foremost an
epistemic space.
A stronger option would therefore be the creation of a new kind of
institution, partly a park and partly a graveyard, where statues of people
who spent most of their lives defacing everything the name black stood
for would be put to rest. Putting them to rest in those new places would
in turn allow us to move on and recreate the kind of new public spaces
required by our new democratic project.
Architecture, public spaces and the common
Now, many may ask: What does bringing down the statue of a late 19th
century privateer has to do with decolonizing a 21st century university?
Or, as many have in fact been asking: Why are we so addicted to the
Are we simply, as Ferial Haffajee, the editor of the weekly City Press
argues, fighting over the past because of our inability to build a future
which, in her eyes, is mostly about each of us turning into an
entrepreneur, making lots of money and becoming a good consumer?
Is this the only future left to aspire to one in which every human being
becomes a market actor; every field of activity is seen as a market; every
entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, state or
corporation) is governed as a firm; people themselves are cast as human
capital and are subjected to market metrics (ratings, rankings) and their
value is determined speculatively in a futures market?

Decolonizing the university starts with the de-privatization and

rehabilitation of the public space the rearrangement of spatial
relations Fanon spoke so eloquently about in the first chapter of The
Wretched of the Earth.
It starts with a redefinition of what is public, i.e., what pertains to the
realm of the common and as such, does not belong to anyone in
particular because it must be equally shared between equals.
The decolonization of buildings and of public spaces is therefore not a
frivolous issue, especially in a country that, for many centuries, has
defined itself as not of Africa, but as an outpost of European imperialism
in the Dark Continent; and in which 70% of the land is still firmly in the
hands of 13% of the population.
The decolonization of buildings and of public spaces is inseparable from
the democratization of access.
When we say access, we are naturally thinking about a wide opening of
the doors of higher learning to all South Africans. For this to happen, SA
must invest in its universities. For the time being, it spends 0.6% of its
GDP on higher education. The percentage of the national wealth invested
in higher education must be increased.
But when we say access, we are also talking about the creation of those
conditions that will allow black staff and students to say of the
university: This is my home. I am not an outsider here. I do not have to
beg or to apologize to be here. I belong here.
Such a right to belong, such a rightful sense of ownership has nothing to
do with charity or hospitality.
It has nothing to do with the liberal notion of tolerance.
It has nothing to do with me having to assimilate into a culture that is
not mine as a precondition of my participating in the public life of the
It has all to do with ownership of a space that is a public, common good.

It has to do with an expansive sense of citizenship itself indispensable for

the project of democracy, which itself means nothing without a deep
commitment to some idea of public-ness.
Furthermore especially for black staff and students - it has to do with
creating a set of mental dispositions. We need to reconcile a logic of
indictment and a logic of self-affirmation, interruption and occupation.
This requires the conscious constitution of a substantial amount of
mental capital and the development of a set of pedagogies we should call
pedagogies of presence.
Black students and staff have to invent a set of creative practices that
ultimately make it impossible for official structures to ignore them and
not recognize them, to pretend that they are not there; to pretend that
they do not see them; or to pretend that their voice does not count.
The decolonization of buildings and public spaces includes a change of
those colonial names, iconography, ie., the economy of symbols whose
function, all along, has been to induce and normalize particular states of
humiliation based on white supremacist presuppositions.
Such names, images and symbols have nothing to do on the walls of a
public university campus more than 20 years after Apartheid.
Classrooms without walls and different forms of intelligence
Another site of decolonization is the university classroom. We cannot
keep teaching the way we have always taught.
Number of our institutions are teaching obsolete forms of knowledge
with obsolete pedagogies. Just as we decommission statues, we should
decommission a lot of what passes for knowledge in our teaching.
In an age that more than ever valorizes different forms of intelligence,
the student-teacher relationship has to change.
In order to set our institutions firmly on the path of future knowledges,
we need to reinvent a classroom without walls in which we are all colearners; a university that is capable of convening various publics in
new forms of assemblies that become points of convergence of and
platforms for the redistribution of different kinds of knowledges.

The quantified subject

Universities have always been organizational structures with certified
and required programs of study, grading system, methods for the
legitimate accumulation of credits and acceptable and non acceptable
standards of achievement.
Since the start of the 20th century, they have been undergoing internal
changes in their organizational structure.
Today, they are large systems of authoritative control, standardization,
gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties.
We need to decolonize the systems of management insofar as they have
turned higher education into a marketable product bought and sold by
standard units.
We might never entirely get rid of measurement, counting, and rating.
We nevertheless have to ask whether each form of measurement,
counting and rating must necessarily lead to the reduction of everything
to staple equivalence.
We have to ask whether there might be other ways of measuring,
counting and rating which escape the trap of everything having to
become a numerical standard or unit.
We have to create alternative systems of management because the
current ones, dominated by statistical reason and the mania for
assessment, are deterring students and teachers from a free pursuit of
knowledge. They are substituting this goal of free pursuit of knowledge
for another, the pursuit of credits.
The system of business principles and statistical accountancy has
resulted in an obsessive concern with the periodic and quantitative
assessment of every facet of university functioning.
An enormous amount of faculty time and energy are expended in the
fulfillment of administrative demands for ongoing assessment and
reviews of programs and in the compilation of extensive files
demonstrating, preferably in statistical terms, their productivity the
number of publications, the number of conference papers presented, the
number of committees served on, the number of courses taught, the

number of students processed in those courses, quantitative measures of

teaching excellence.
Excellence itself has been reduced to statistical accountancy.
We have to change this if we want to break the cycle that tends to turn
students into customers and consumers.
We have to change this and many other sites - if the aim of higher
education is to be, once again, to redistribute as equally as possible a
capacity of a special type the capacity to make disciplined inquiries
into those things we need to know, but do not know yet; the capacity to
make systematic forays beyond our current knowledge horizons.
The philosophical challenge
Let me now move to the most important part of this lecture. While
preparing it, it became clear to me that the questions we face are of a
profoundly intellectual nature.
They are also colossal. And if we do not foreground them intellectually in
the first instance; if we do not develop a complex understanding of the
nature of what we are actually facing, we will end up with the same old
techno-bureaucratic fixes that have led us, in the first place, to the
current cul-de-sac.
To be perfectly frank, I have to add that our task is rendered all the more
complex because there is hardly any agreement as to the meaning, and
even less so the future, of what goes by the name the university in our
world today.
The harder I tried to make sense of the idea of decolonization that has
become the rallying cry for those trying to undo the racist legacies of the
past, the more I kept asking myself to what extent we might be fighting a
complexly mutating entity with concepts inherited from an entirely
different age and epoch. Is todays university the same as yesterdays or
are we confronting an entirely different apparatus, an entirely different
rationality both of which require us to produce radically new concepts?
We all agree that there is something anachronistic, something
fundamentally wrong with a number of institutions of higher learning in
South Africa.

There is something fundamentally cynical when institutions whose

character is profoundly ethno-provincial keep masquerading as replicas
of Oxford and Cambridge without demonstrating the same productivity
as the original places they are mimicking.
There is something profoundly wrong when, for instance, syllabi
designed to meet the needs of colonialism and Apartheid continue well
into the post-Apartheid era.
We also agree that part of what is wrong with our institutions of higher
learning is that they are Westernized.
But what does it mean they are westernized?
They are indeed Westernized if all that they aspire to is to become local
instantiations of a dominant academic model based on a Eurocentric
epistemic canon.
But what is a Eurocentric canon?
A Eurocentric canon is a canon that attributes truth only to the Western
way of knowledge production.
It is a canon that disregards other epistemic traditions.
It is a canon that tries to portray colonialism as a normal form of social
relations between human beings rather than a system of exploitation and
Furthermore, Western epistemic traditions are traditions that claim
detachment of the known from the knower.
They rest on a division between mind and world, or between reason and
nature as an ontological a priori.
They are traditions in which the knowing subject is enclosed in itself and
peeks out at a world of objects and produces supposedly objective
knowledge of those objects. The knowing subject is thus able, we are
told, to know the world without being part of that world and he or she is
by all accounts able to produce knowledge that is supposed to be
universal and independent of context.

The problem because there is a problem indeed with this tradition is

that it has become hegemonic.
This hegemonic notion of knowledge production has generated
discursive scientific practices and has set up interpretive frames that
make it difficult to think outside of these frames. But this is not all.
This hegemonic tradition has not only become hegemonic. It also
actively represses anything that actually is articulated, thought and
envisioned from outside of these frames.
For these reasons, the emerging consensus is that our institutions must
undergo a process of decolonization both of knowledge and of the
university as an institution.
The task before us is to give content to this call which requires that we
be clear about what we are talking about.
Is decolonization the same thing as Africanization?
Calls to decolonize are not new. Nor have they gone uncontested
whenever they have been made. We all have in mind African postcolonial
experiments in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, to decolonize was the same
thing as to Africanize. To decolonize was part of a nation-building
Frantz Fanon was extremely critical of the project of Africanization.
His critique of Africanization (The Wreched of the Earth, chapter 3)
was entirely political.
First, he did not believe that it nation-building could be achieved by
those he called the national middle class or the national bourgeoisie.
Fanon did not trust the African postcolonial middle class at all.
He thought the African postcolonial middle class was lazy, unscrupulous,
parasitic and above all lacking spiritual depth precisely because it had
totally assimilated colonialist thought in its most corrupt form.
Not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labour, its
innermost vocation, he thought, was not to transform the nation. It was
merely to keep in the running and be part of the racket. For instance it
constantly demanded the nationalization of the economy and of the

trading sectors. But nationalization quite simply meant the transfer into
native hands of those unfair advantages which were a legacy of the
colonial past.
He also thought that in the aftermath of colonialism, the middle class
manipulated the overall claim to self-determination as a way of
preventing the formation of an authentic national consciousness.
In order to preserve its own interests, the middle class turned the
national project into an an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of
what might have been. In this context, the discourse of Africanization
mostly performed an ideological work. Africanization was the ideology
masking what fundamentally was a racketeering or predatory project
what we call today looting.
More ominously, Fanon took a certain discourse of Africanization to be
akin to something he called retrogression retrogression when the
nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state.
Retrogression too when, behind a so-called nationalist rhetoric, lurks
the hideous face of chauvinism the heart breaking return of
chauvinism in its most bitter and detestable form, he writes.
In the aftermath of independence, Fanon witnessed events similar to
what we in South Africa call xenophobic or Afrophobic attacks
against fellow Africans. He witnessed similar events in the Ivory Coast,
in Senegal, in the Congo where those we call, in the South African lexicon
foreigners controlled the greater part of the petty trade.
These Africans of other nations were rounded up and commanded to
leave. Their shops were burned and their street stalls were wrecked.
Fanon was ill at ease with calls for Africanization because calls for
Africanization are, in most instances, always haunted by the dark
desire to get rid of the foreigner - a dark desire which, Fanon confesses,
made him furious and sick at heart.
It made him furious and sick at heart because the foreigner to be gotten
rid of was almost always a fellow African from another nation.

And because the objective target of Africanization was a fellow African

from another nation, he saw in Africanization the name of an inverted
racism self-racism if you like.
As far as I know, Fanon is the most trenchant critique of the
decolonization-as-Africanization paradigm.
He is its most trenchant critique because of his conviction that very
often, especially when the wrong social class is in charge, there is a
shortcut from nationalism to chauvinism, and finally to racism.
In other words, we topple Cecil Rhodes statue only to replace it with the
statue of Hitler.
Difference and repetition
Now, if Africanization and decolonization are not the same thing, what
then is the true meaning of decolonization?.
For Fanon, struggles for decolonization are first and foremost about selfownership. They are struggles to repossess, to take back, if necessary by
force that which is ours unconditionally and, as such, belongs to us.
As a theory of self-ownership, decolonization is therefore relational,
always a bundle of innate rights, capabilities and claims made against
others, taken back from others and to be protected against others once
again, by force if necessary.
In his eyes, self-ownership is a precondition, a necessary step towards
the creation of new forms of life that could genuinely be characterized as
fully human.
Becoming human does not only happen in time, but through, by means
of, almost by virtue of time. And time, properly speaking, is creation and
self-creation the creation of new forms of life. And if there is
something we could call a Fanonian theory of decolonization, that is
where it is, in the dialectic of time, life and creation which for him is
the same as self-appropriation.
Decolonization is not about design, tinkering with the margins. It was
about reshaping, turning human beings once again into craftsmen and

craftswomen who, in reshaping matters and forms, needed not to look at

the pre-existing models and needed not use them as paradigms.
Thus his rejection of imitation and mimicry. Thus his call to
provincialize Europe; to turn our backs on Europe; to not take Europe
as a model and this for all sorts of reasons:
[1] The first was that the European game has finally ended; we must
find something different; that We today can do everything, so long as
we do not imitate Europe (WoE, 312); or today we are present at the
stasis of Europe (314);
[2] The second was that It is a question of the Third World starting a
new history of Man (315); we must try to set afoot a new man (316).
The time of decolonization had a double character. It was the time of
closure as well as the time of possibility. As such it required a politics of
difference as opposed to a politics of imitation and repetition.
It is not very difficult to understand why for Fanon, decolonization came
to be so closely associated with these fundamental facts about being,
time and self-creation, and ultimately difference as opposed to
The reason is that colonization itself was a fundamental negation of
[1] Negation of time in the sense that, from the colonial point of view,
natives were not simply people without history. They were people
radically located outside of time; or whose time was radically out of joint.
[2] Negation of time also in the sense that that essential category of time
we call the future that essential human quality we call the disposition
towards the future and the capacity for futurity all of these were the
monopoly of Europe and had to be brought to the natives from outside,
as a magnanimous gift of civilization a gift that turned colonial
violence and plunder into a benevolent act supposed to absolve those
such as Rhodes who engaged in it.
[3] Thirdly, negation of time in the sense that, in the colonial mind, the
native was ontologically incapable of change and therefore of creation.
The native would always and forever be a native. It was the belief that if

she or he were to change, the ways in which this change would occur and
the forms that this change would take or would bring about all of this
would always end in a catastrophe.
In other words, the native principle was about repetition - repetition
without difference. Native time was sheer repetition - not of events as
such, but the instantiation of the very law of repetition.
Fanon understands decolonization as precisely a subversion of the law of
repetition. In order for this to happen, decolonization had to be :
[1] An event that could radically redefine native being and open it up to
the possibility of becoming a human form rather than a thing;
[2] An historical event in the sense that it could radically redefine native
time as the permanent possibility of the emergence of the not yet.
[3] To the colonial framework of pre-determination, decolonization
opposes the framework of possibility possibility of a different type of
being, a different type of time, a different type of creation, different
forms of life, a different humanity the possibility to reconstitute the
human after humanisms complicity with colonial racism.
Decolonization, he says, is always a violent phenomenon whose goal is
the replacing of a certain species of men by another species of men
The Latin term species derives from a root signifying to look, to see.
It means appearance, or vision. It can also mean aspect. The same
root is found in the term speculum, which means mirror; or
spectrum, which means image; in specimen which means sign, and
spectaculum which refers to spectacle.
When Fanon uses the term a new species of men, what does he have in
A new species of men is a new category of men who are no longer
limited or predetermined by their appearance, and whose essence
coincides with their image their image not as something separate from
them; not as something that does not belong to them; but insofar as
there is no gap between this image and the recognition of oneself, the
property of oneself.

A new species of men is also a category of men who can create new forms
of life, free from the shock realization that the image through which they
have emerged into visibility (race) is not their essence.
Decolonization is the elimination of this gap between image and
essence. It is about the restitution of the essence to the image so that
that which exists can exist in itself and not in something other than itself,
something distorted, clumsy, debased and unworthy.

Seeing oneself clearly

Now, lets invoke another tradition represented by Ngugi wa Thiongo
(Decolonizing the Mind, 1981) for whom to Africanize has a slightly
different meaning.
For Ngugi, to Africanize is part of a larger politics not the politics of
racketeering and looting, but the politics of language or has he himself
puts it, of the mother tongue.
It is also part of a larger search - the search for what he calls a
liberating perspective.
What does he mean by this expression? He mainly means a perspective
which can allow us to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves
and to other selves in the universe (87). It is worth noting that Ngugi
uses the term decolonizing by which he means not an event that
happens once for all at a given time and place, but an ongoing process of
seeing ourselves clearly; emerging out of a state of either blindness or
We should note, too, the length to which Ngugi goes in tying up the
process of seeing ourselves clearly (which in his mind is probably the
same as seeing for ourselves) to the question of relationality (a trope so
present in various other traditions of Black thought, in particular
We are called upon to see ourselves clearly, not as an act of secession
from the rest of the humanity, but in relation to ourselves and to other
selves with whom we share the universe.

And the term other selves is open ended enough to include, in this Age
of the Anthropocene, all sorts of living species and objects, including the
biosphere itself.
Let me add that Ngugi is, more than Fanon, directly interested in
questions of writing and teaching writing oneself, teaching oneself.
He believes that decolonization is not an end point. It is the beginning of
an entirely new struggle. It is a struggle over what is to be taught; it is
about the terms under which we should be teaching what - not to some
generic figure of the student, but to the African child, a figure that is
very much central to his politics and to his creative work.
Let me briefly recall the core questions Ngugi is grappling with, and it is
pretty obvious that they are also ours.
What should we do with the inherited colonial education system and the
consciousness it necessarily inculcated in the African mind? What
directions should an education system take in an Africa wishing to break
with neo-colonialism? How does it want the New Africans to view
themselves and their universe and from what base, Afrocentric or
Eurocentric? What then are the materials they should be exposed to, and
in what order and perspective? Who should be interpreting that material
to them, an African or non-African? If African, what kind of African?
One who has internalized the colonial world outlook or one attempting
to break free from the inherited slave consciousness?
If we are to do anything about our individual and collective being
today, Ngugi argues, then we have to coldly and consciously look at
what imperialism has been doing to us and to our view of ourselves in
the universe (88).
In Ngugis terms, decolonization is a project of re-centering. It is
about rejecting the assumption that the modern West is the central root
of Africas consciousness and cultural heritage. It is about rejecting the
notion that Africa is merely an extension of the West.
Indeed it is not. The West as such is but a recent moment of our long
history. Long before our encounter with the West in the 15th century
under the sign of capital, we were relational, worldly beings.

Our geographical imagination extended far beyond the territorial limits

of this colossal Continent. It encompassed the trans-Saharian vast
expanses and the Indian Ocean shores. It reached the Arabian Peninsula
and China Seas.
Decolonizing ( la Ngugi) is not about closing the door to European or
other traditions. It is about defining clearly what the centre is.
And for Ngugi, Africa has to be placed at the centre.
Education is a means of knowledge about ourselves. .. After we have
examined ourselves, we radiate outwards and discover peoples and
worlds around us. With Africa at the centre of things, not existing as an
appendix or a satellite of other countries and literatures, things must be
seen from the African perspective. All other things are to be considered
in their relevance to our situation and their contribution towards
understanding ourselves. In suggesting this we are not rejecting other
streams, especially the western stream. We are only clearly mapping out
the directions and perspectives the study of culture and literature will
inevitably take in an African university.

I have spent this amount of time on Ngugi because he is arguably the

African writer who has the most popularized the concept of
decolonizing we are today relying upon to foster the project of a future
university in South Africa. Ngugi drew practical implications from his
considerations and we might be wise to look into some of these as we
grapple with what it might possibly mean to decolonize our own
institutions. Most of these implications had to do with the content and
extent of what was to be taught (curriculum reform).
Crucial in this regard was the need to teach African languages. A
decolonized university in Africa should put African languages at the
center of its teaching and learning project.
Colonialism rimes with mono-lingualism.
The African university of tomorrow will be multilingual.
It will teach (in) Swahili, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Shona, Yoruba, Hausa,
Lingala, Gikuyu and it will teach all those other African languages

French, Portuguese or Arabic have become while making a space for

Chinese, Hindu etc. It will turn these languages into a creative repository
of concepts originating from the four corners of the Earth.
A second implication of Ngugis position is that Africa expands well
beyond the geographical limits of the Continent. He wanted to pursue
the African connection to the four corners of the Earth to the West
Indies, to Afro-America.
The lesson is clear. Decolonizing an African university requires a
geographical imagination that extends well beyond the confines of the
A lot could be said here in view of the segregationist and isolationist
histories of South Africa.
Recent scholarship on the many versions of black internationalism and
its intersections with various other forms of internationalisms could help
in rethinking the spatial politics of decolonization in so far as true
decolonization, as Dubois intimated in 1919, necessarily centers on the
destiny of humankind and not of one race, color or ethnos.
Decolonizing in the future tense
Today, the decolonizing project is back on the agenda worldwide.
It has two sides. The first is a critique of the dominant Eurocentric
academic model the fight against what Latin Americans in particular
call epistemic coloniality, that is, the endless production of theories
that are based on European traditions; are produced nearly always by
Europeans or Euro-American men who are the only ones accepted as
capable of reaching universality; a particular anthropological knowledge,
which is a process of knowing about Others- but a process that never
fully acknowledges these Others as thinking and knowledge-producing
The second is an attempt at imagining what the alternative to this model
could look like.
This is where a lot remains to be done. Whatever the case, there is a
recognition of the exhaustion of the present academic model with its
origins in the universalism of the Enlightenment. Boaventura de Sousa

or Enrique Dussel for instance make it clear that knowledge can only be
thought of as universal if it is by definition pluriversal.
They have also made it clear that at the end of the decolonizing process,
we will no longer have a university. We will have a pluriversity.
What is a pluriversity?
A pluriversity is not merely the extension throughout the world of a
Eurocentric model presumed to be universal and now being reproduced
almost everywhere thanks to commercial internationalism.
By pluriversity, many understand a process of knowledge production
that is open to epistemic diversity.
It is a process that does not necessarily abandon the notion of universal
knowledge for humanity, but which embraces it via a horizontal strategy
of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions.
To decolonize the university is therefore to reform it with the aim of
creating a less provincial and more open critical cosmopolitan
pluriversalism a task that involves the radical re-founding of our ways
of thinking and a transcendence of our disciplinary divisions.
The problem of course is whether the university is reformable or whether
it is too late.
The age of global Apartheid
We need not to be blind to the limits of the various approaches I have
just sketched.
As I said at the start of this talk, my fear is that we might be fighting
battles of the present and the future with outdated tools.
A more profound understanding of the situation we find ourselves in
today if we are to better rethink the university of tomorrow.
There are a number of things we can do and alone. For instance, turning
our universities into safe spaces for black students and staff has an
economic cost.
We can keep toppling the statues of those who were firmly convinced
that to be black is a liability and to a certain extent we must.

We can change the names of infamous buildings, remake the

iconography of their interiors, reform the curriculum, desegregate the
dormitories. Transformation will not happen without a recapitalization
of our institutions of higher learning.
To better design the higher education landscape of tomorrow, we also
need to pay close attention to deeper, systemic global dynamics.
We cannot lose sight of the political economy of knowledge production
in the contemporary world of higher education and pretend to
decolonize either the university or knowledge itself for that matter.
The flows and linkages in the production, distribution and consumption
of knowledge are global. They are not global in the same way
everywhere, but they are definitely global and the world of higher
education itself is made up of different forms of geo-political
The university as we knew it is dead.
Unaware of this fact, many countries might elect to keep living in the
midst of its ruins for a long time to come.
Spearheaded by global markets, notably speculation-driven finance and
a push for hyper-profits, the global restructuring of higher education
initiated at the beginning of the 20th century in America has now reached
its final stage.
Late orthodoxy has it that universities are too expensive, too fragmented
and too nation-state-centric at a time when economic integration at a
planetary level must become the new norm.
The urgency, we are told, is to move towards a post-national or partially
denationalized higher education space that would increase the
availability of a skilled labor force and foster the transferability and
compatibility of skills across boundaries while helping to set up intensive
research collaborations between universities and transnational
Within this paradigm, the new mission assigned to universities is to
produce innovations that are necessary for the interests of
transnationally mobile capital.

To this effect, a small number of lite universities must train tomorrows

creative classes.
These are people whose economic interests will be globally linked; whose
bonds as citizens of a particular nation-state will be weakened while
those resting on being the member of a transnational class will be
strengthened. They are destined to share similar lifestyles and
consumption habits.
The rescaling of the university is meant to achieve one single goal - to
turn it into a springboard for global markets in an economy that is
increasingly knowledge and innovation-based and therefore requires
specialized knowledge in advanced mathematics, complex systems and
technologies and intricate organizational formats.
A consequence of the denationalization and transnationalisation has
been the de-funding of major public institutions in the West and the
intensification of the competition among universities throughout the
The brutality of this competition is such that it has opened a new era of
global Apartheid in higher education. In this new era, winners will
graduate to the status of world class universities and losers will be
relegated and confined to the category of global bush colleges.
Global bush colleges will keep churning out masses of semi-qualified
students saddled with massive debts and destined to join the growing
ranks of the low-income workers, of the unemployed and of the growing
number of people expelled from the core social and economic orders of
our times.
This is what is called zoning or warehousing.
Zoning is fuelled by the tremendous expansion of higher education on a
global scale.
The latter has opened the way to an unprecedented era of student
mobility and educational migration.
China alone had a staggering 419,000 students pursuing higher
education outside the countrys borders in 2008. Today, Africans
constitute 7% of the international student body in Chinese universities.

They are present in virtually every province. According to the World

Trade Organization, outward student mobility is increasing faster from
Africa than from any other continent.
Why is China comparatively well positioned to attract African students?
Well, partly because of its moderate tuition fees, low living costs,
welcoming visa policies as compared to most Western destinations and,
more and more, South Africa. At Wits, non-national African students pay
more than 700% what South African students pay annually. The other
factor is the extent to which African students in China are able to
combine studies with business activities, especially to engage in trade.
In SA, contrary to the United States, a non-national staff member with
tenure is not guaranteed a permanent work permit. His or her work
permit must not only be subjected to renewal periodically. Whenever he
moves from one institution to another, he must reapply for an entirely
new work permit. Furthermore, there is no correlation between
permanent job tenure and access to permanent residence.
The paradigm of the world class university has become attractive to
many countries, especially in Asia where national governments are
copying the Anglo-American based model in order to restructure their
higher education sector.
The worlds largest and most populous nations outside the Western
world such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan are educating
large skilled workforces. Malaysia, the Gulf States, Singapore are
increasingly supporting the development of regional institutions while
establishing themselves as major hubs for new waves of globalized
higher education.
The developments sketched above partly explain why universities have
become large systems of authoritative control and standardization.
Indeed higher education has been turned into a marketable product. The
free pursuit of knowledge has been replaced by the free pursuit of
credits. Worldwide not much differentiates students from customers and

Can we and should we fight against this trend? Are there aspects of this
process of denationalization that can be maximized for our own
If the university has been effectively turned into a springboard for global
markets, what do terms such as decolonizing knowledge possibly
Can we compete with China in attracting African students to our shores?
Yes, if we fully embrace our own location in the African continent and
stop thinking in South-Africa-centric terms.
Yes, if we entirely redesign our curricula and our tuition systems, revamp
our immigration policy and open new paths to citizenship for those who
are willing to tie their fate with ours.
Of all African nations, we are in the best position to set up diasporic
knowledge networks which would enable scholars of African descent in
the rest of the world to transfer their skills and expertise to our students
without necessarily settling here permanently.
This is what China has done through its 111 program whose aim is to
recruit overseas Chinese intellectuals to mainland universities on a
periodic basis.
We are also in the best position to set up study in Africa programs for
our students and to foster new intra-continental academic networks
through various connectivity schemes. This is how we will maximize the
benefits of brain circulation.
The speed, scale and volume of the phenomenon of transnational talent
mobility will only increase and with it, the emergence of the new reality
of knowledge diasporas. The constitution of these knowledge diasporas
is encouraged, supported and necessitated by globalization.
We need to take this phenomenon seriously and stop thinking about it in
terms of theories of migration. The complexity of the current motion
defies the labels of brain drain and brain gain. We live in an age in which
most relations between academics are increasingly de-territorialized.

Lets do like other countries. Take, for instance, China. In 2010, Chinese
scholars in the USA represented 25.6% of all the international scholars.
In China itself, they are regarded not only as knowledge carriers and
producers but also as cultural mediators capable of interrogating the
global through the local, precisely because they inhabit in-between
spaces not bound by nation-states.
We will foster a process of decolonization of our universities if we invest
in these diasporic intellectual networks and if we take seriously these
spaces of transnational engagement, with the goal of harnessing for
South Africa and Africa the floating resources freed by the process of
globalised talent mobility. In order to achieve such a goal, we cannot
afford to think exclusively in South-African-centric terms.
There will be no decolonization of our universities without a better
understanding of the complex dynamics of global movement to which we
must respond through Africa-centered, pro-active projects.
The aim of higher education in emerging democracies is to redistribute
as equally as possible the capacity to make disciplined inquiries into
those things we need to know, but do not know yet.
Our capacity to make systematic forays beyond our current knowledge
horizons will be severely hampered if we rely exclusively on those aspects
of the Western archive that disregard other epistemic traditions.
Yet the Western archive is singularly complex. It contains within itself
the resources of its own refutation. It is neither monolithic, nor the
exclusive property of the West. Africa and its diaspora decisively
contributed to its making and should legitimately make foundational
claims on it.
Decolonizing knowledge







As writer Ngugi wa Thiongo reminds us, it mostly means developing a

perspective which can allow us to see ourselves clearly, but always in
relationship to ourselves and to other selves in the universe, nonhumans included.
Deep time

Finally we can no longer think about the human in the same terms we
were used to until quite recently.
At the start of this new century, three processes force us to think the
human in entirely new ways.
The first is the recognition of the fact that an epoch-scale boundary has
been crossed within the last two centuries of human life on Earth and
that we have, as a consequence, entered an entirely new deep, geological
time, that of the Anthropocene.
The concept of the Anthropocene itself denotes a new geological epoch
characterized by human-induced massive and accelerated changes to the
Earths climate, land, oceans and biosphere.
The scale, magnitude and significance of this environmental change in
other words the future evolution of the biosphere and of Earths
environmental life support systems particularly in the context of the
Earths geological history - this is arguably the most important question
facing the humanity since at stake is the very possibility of its extinction.
We therefore have to rethink the human not from the perspective of its
mastery of the Creation as we used to, but from the perspective of its
finitude and its possible extinction.
This kind of rethinking, to be sure, has been under way for some time
now. The problem is that we seem to have entirely avoided it in Africa in
spite of the existence of a rich archive in this regard.
This rethinking of the human has unfolded along several lines and has
yielded a number of preliminary conclusions I would like to summarize.
The first is that humans are part of a very long, deep history that is not
simply theirs; that history is vastly older than the very existence of the
human race which, in fact, is very recent. And they share this deep
history with various forms of other living entities and species.
Our history is therefore one of entanglement with multiple other species.
And this being the case, the dualistic partitions of minds from bodies,
meaning and matter or nature from culture can no longer hold.

The second and this is crucial for the renewed dialogue the humanities
must have with life and natural sciences - is that matter has
morphogenetic capacities of its own and does not need to be commanded
into generating form.
It is not an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside
imposed by an exterior agency.
This being the case, the concept of agency and power must be extended
to non-human nature and conventional understandings of life must be
called into question.
The third is that to be a subject is no longer to act autonomously in front
of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that
have also lost their autonomy.
We therefore have to shift away from the dreams of mastery.
In other words, a new understanding of ontology, epistemology, ethics
and politics has to be achieved. It can only be achieved by overcoming
anthropocentrism and humanism, the split between nature and culture.
The human no longer constitutes a special category that is other than
that of the objects. Objects are not a pole opposed to humans.
At the heart of the efforts at reframing the human is the growing
realization of our precariousness as a species in the face of ecological
threats and the outright possibility of human extinction opened up by
climate change.
We are witnessing an opening up to the multiple affinities between
humans and other creatures or species. We can no longer assume that
there are incommensurable differences between us, tool makers, sign
makers, language speakers and other animals or between social history
and natural history.
Our world is populated by a variety of nonhuman actors. They are
unleashed in the world as autonomous actors in their own right,
irreducible to representations and freed from any constant reference to
the human.

Race has once again re-entered the domain of biological truth, viewed
now through a molecular gaze. A new molecular deployment of race has
emerged out of genomic thinking.
Worlwide, we witness a renewed interest in terms of the identification of
biological differences.
Fundamental to ongoing re-articulations of race and recoding of racism
are developments in the life sciences, and in particular in
genomics, in our understanding of the cell, in neuroscience and in
synthetic biology.
This process has been rendered even more powerful by its convergence
with two parallel developments.
The first is the digital technologies of the information age and the second
is the financialization of the economy.
This has led to two sets of consequences. On the one hand is a renewed
preoccupation with the future of life itself. The corporeal is no
longer construed as the mystery it has been for a very long time. It
is now read as a molecular mechanism. This being the case,
organisms including human organisms seem amenable to
optimization by reverse engineering and reconfiguration. In other
words, life defined as a molecular process is understood as
amenable to intervention.
This in turn has revitalized fantasies of omnipotence the Second
Creation (vs Apocalypse)
A second set of consequences has to do with the new work capital is
doing under contemporary conditions.
Thanks to the work of capital, we are no longer fundamentally different
from things. We turn them into persons. We fall in love with them. We
are no longer only persons or we have never been only persons.
Furthermore we now realize that there is probably more to race than we
ever imagined.

New configurations of racism are emerging worldwide. Because racethinking increasingly entails profound questions about the nature of
species in general, the need to rethink the politics of racialisation and the
terms under which the struggle for racial justice unfolds here and
elsewhere in the world today has become ever more urgent.
Racism here and elsewhere is still acting as a constitutive supplement to
nationalism and chauvinism. How do we create a world beyond nationalchauvinism?
Behind the veil of neutrality and impartiality, racial power still
structurally depends on various legal regimes for its reproduction. How
do we radically transform the law?
Even more ominously, race politics is taking a genomic turn.
At stake in the contemporary reconfigurations and mutations of race and
racism is the splitting of humanity itself into separate species and subspecies as a result of market libertarianism and genetic technology.
At stake are also, once again, the old questions of who is whom, who can
make what kinds of claims on whom and on what grounds, and who is to
own whom and what. In a contemporary neoliberal order that claims to
have gone beyond the racial, the struggle for racial justice must take new
In order to invigorate anti-racist thought and praxis and to reanimate
the project of a non-racial university, we particularly need to explore the
emerging nexus between biology, genes, technologies and their
articulations with new forms of human destitution.
But simply looking into past and present local and global re-articulations
of race will not suffice.
To tease out alternative possibilities for thinking life and human futures
in this age of neoliberal individualism, we need to connect in entirely
new ways the project of non-racialism to that of human mutuality.
In the last instance, a non-racial university is truly about radical sharing
and universal inclusion.

It is about humankind ruling in common for a common which includes

the non-humans, which is the proper name for democracy.
To reopen the future of our planet to all who inhabit it, we will have to
learn how to share it again amongst the humans, but also between the
humans and the non-humans.